cultural divide in IM: presence vs. communication

To most of my friends, i appear always-on. If i’m not on the computer, my IMs usually go to my Sidekick. I have a round-the-clock presence on AIM, even if frequently idle. I share this round-the-clockness with some of my buddies – people who always appear to be on, although sometimes idle. There are other buddies who pop up whenever they’re on their computer (often 9-5). Then, there are those who pop up very occasionally.

The thing about members of this latter category is that they *always* want to talk when they come online. This makes sense – they’re appearing online only to talk, not to share presence. They are seeing IM as a communication tool first and foremost.

Interestingly, it is this group that complains the most about how they can never get anything done when IM is on. I try really hard not to respond in a snarky voice that i can never get anything done when they’re on. They get upset when i don’t have time to talk, arguing that i shouldn’t be online if i don’t want to talk.

There is, in fact, a culture divide in instant messaging.

As someone who is always on, i spend a small fraction of the day using IM. It is always on because of presence. There are types of ‘interruptions’ that are not actually interruptions. For example, when my roommate wants to ask when i’ll be home or when a friend wants to know a reference. Quick, practical questions that are far more like presence pokes than interruptions. Then, there are acceptable interruptions – things like work questions, emergencies, pointers to relevant info, etc. And then, there’s conversation.

I don’t spend a lot of time conversing on IM, very little in fact. I simply do not have time. But, i am 10 million times more likely to converse with someone who is always-on than someone who just pops up for conversation. The reason is simple – collective signaling of conversational possibility. As an always-on’r, when someone pokes me to talk and i don’t have time, i say sorry – can’t talk or some equivalent (except in the case of my phone which might appear to be on while i’m doing something but isn’t really). I expect the same from my fellow always-on’rs. So, when i’m in the mood to talk to people and they’re in the mood to talk to me (or we’re equally procrastinating), we come to a consensus and conversation happens.

Now, let’s go back to the people who come online just to talk. The problem with this group is that they’re unintentionally exerting power. They are declaring their free time by logging on and they’re assuming that i am signaling the same thing. But i’m not. This is simply cultural cluelessness. But when they then get upset with me, that’s the exertion of power. And this is what has prompted me to change IM accounts or block people in the past. Now, i’m just rude.

Consider the telephone. When your phone rings, are you required to pick it up? At first, everyone assumed you were. Eventually, we learned that the phone doesn’t have to have that kind of power over us. And many of us now screen and only pick up the phone when it is applicable to the situation we’re in. (Of course, some of us still need to learn that.) The caller is signaling their free time, but the receiver gets to decide if it’s culturally appropriate. And thus, they are actually doing the negotiating dance of us always-on’rs.

The problem with IM is that the always-on’rs have gotten far more comfortable with the technology than those who still see it as a communication tool, not just a desirable presence tool. The cultural divide is very much magnified by experience and time spent engaged in the technology. Of course, the split happens around those who recognize the value of presence and want to do what it takes culturally to retain that.

Update: Since Liz called me on bits of this entry, i should clarify a key assumption i was making in presenting this argument – i am talking very explicitly about people with relatively equal standing in terms of power (i.e. peers). While all “equal” relationships are about negotiating power back and forth, the technology consistently gives one person in the peer-duo power over the other – that’s where the problem is primarily situated. With unequal power pairings, the problem is exacerbated because there’s an assumption of equal power standing in IM that is not actually true to form. For example, as a TA in college, i would have students who thought they could bug me anytime they had a problem with their assignment. This happened because it was assumed that there was equal power between IM participants and so the negotiation of power got usurped by the technology because the context got cleansed. In other words, all IM windows look the same and so you forget about the context that would normally differentiate situations of equal footing (such as the bar) and situations of differentiated footing (such as the TA office).

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33 thoughts on “cultural divide in IM: presence vs. communication

  1. Jessica

    Lemme guess, did you just have or almost have a spat with a communicator? I was going to write about this today when I was chatting with a friend on IM whom I’ve had little fights with about talking on IM. Even though I’ve been using IM for many years it’s hard for me to shake my communication-only ways. I think it may come from the fact that I used dialup when my friend had cable internet. I would treat chatting on IM exactly like I was making a phone call. She would tell me she’d be right back and then come back an hour later. At the time, to me, this was an insult because I was tying up my phone line waiting for her.

    Even after getting cable I still expected people who were online to want to talk, be available to talk, and talk back if they could. If they couldn’t talk they a) should get offline or b) put up an away message. Those were my rules, but it seemed like every different friend had their own set of rules.

    Now, I just try to bend to fit everybody else’s practices. I don’t go online if I don’t want to talk or can’t talk. One friend may be away for 3 hours, another may never go away and want to talk the entire 20 minutes she’s online. Either way, it’s about me catering to their style and not getting upset about it.

    It will take some time before everybody’s on the same page because the technology’s so new. Maybe people should write what their chatting style is in their profile instead of the lyrics to their favorite song.

  2. zephoria

    Actually, not a spat, but close. A good friend got online for the first time in forever, a sociologist friend and he really wanted to talk and i needed to read. And i called him on exerting power in his techno-avoidance ways. And then i decided to think through that deeper and think back to previous interactions.

    Part of what makes away msgs impossible – 1) they don’t exist on the sidekick (more accurately, they’re preconfigured and too lame for words and i refuse to use them); 2) i’m not actually away and if we’re working together, i don’t want to confuse you. I’m only away for *certain* kinds of interactions.

    And yes, learning, that’s the key. And most of my friends have learned… but those who are rarely online haven’t learned as much. ::laugh::

    Actually, there’s another problem group – those who are rarely online, send an IM and then go offline before i see it and are never back online and i never end up knowing to connect with them.

  3. nick

    There’s a way of making IM presence much more subtle and frankly human in character — I’m smiling as I remember all manner of cross-library conversations-by-glances — and it’s a only a matter of time before it happens. (Matt Webb’s ideas about ‘glancing’ — ways of indicating heightened presence without the binary of IM communication — are right up your street here.)

    I’ve gone from being always-on to a ‘never on unless I need to be’ IMer, partly because it got to the point that 98% of IM conversations were interruptions. I’ve grown more accustomed, and more appreciative, of the deferred presence of email, especially now that I do have an always-on connection.

    One last thought: IM is quite an adolescent form of communication, isn’t it? Or, at least, it lends itself to the kind of communications that you associate with adolescence: ones that have implicit power relationships, demands, elements of duty…

  4. Terry

    I’m a one of those always-on persons and most of my friends are also, especially those who I have meet from various travels. I wish telephone had an “always-on” culture, because currently I have screen calls due to long disruptive conversations.

    What just occurred to me is that the always-on culture is resembles the emerging IT systems architecture for the 21st. The asynchronous communication nature of the always-on culture, with negotiated extended communication, can lead to greater scale of association. IT systems designed with presence technology utlizing asynchronous communication technology lead to greater system scaling which means more systems can interact and exchange information.

    Without an always-on presence culture, as in the synchronous era of telephone only communication, we screen calls and in the case of an IT system built with synchronous technology the system is designed to prioritize communications links otherwise it is inundated and breaks down.

  5. Joi Ito

    I was on a panel in Tel Aviv recently and Yossi Vardi said the most important information when he is traveling is that his phone is on and it is not ringing. That means his family is safe. That’s, depending on how you count it, 1 bit or 0 bits of information.

  6. Eric Nehrlich

    My friend Jofish just published a paper titled Communicating Intimacy One Bit at a Time, where he and his collaborators gave partners in a long distance relationship a piece of software that would light up a software LED on one partner’s screen when the other partner clicked a button. The LED’s brightness would slowly decay with time, indicating presence.

    Perhaps a similar scheme could be implemented for IM, with different colors representing active communication versus presence, with a quick fade from active to passive. Idle time serves a similar purpose, but is perhaps ignored or unseen. Perhaps it’s just a matter of making idle time visible and contextual through color to help alert relative IM newbies to social appropriateness.

  7. Jacob Haller

    I have two IM accounts which I use for different things. I’m required to be logged into my ICQ account during work hours so that people can message me if they need to. This has generally soured me on instant messaging, particularly since I had a coworker who used to IM me to tell me that she just sent me an email, and then would IM me again a few minutes later if I hadn’t responded to her first IM by then.

    The other is my AIM account which I use for more ‘social’ stuff. I have pretty mixed feelings about IM so I don’t usually leave it up, although this is subject to a certain amount of variation … I’ve been leaving it up more recently lately.

    I think that the two things I dislike about IM are:

    * When I get a message I feel a certain amount of pressure to respond within a few minutes, even if I’m busy dealing with something else. Conversely if I don’t respond quickly and when I finally head over to AIM and find that the person who messaged me has logged off I feel bad.

    * I haven’t figured out yet how the social dynamics work — when it’s OK to message people, how to gracefully end a conversation when both of you are still probably going to be logged in for a while but have exhausted the topic you were discussing, etc.

    I think one of the reasons I tend not to initiate too many IM conversations is related to (1) — I’m worried that I’ll be messaging someone at a time not convenient for them and that this will affect them the way it affects me when someone does it to me.

    The strange thing is that I also spend most of my day logged into a MOO where, you would think, the same sorts of issues would be present, but I don’t get freaked out by the dynamics in the same way. In part I think it’s because of the fact that there are a bunch of people around, so the overall conversation can continue while I jump in and out of it as I have time. (But I also think work probably has contributed to my less than positive assessment of IM.)

  8. Jens

    Away messages on the Sidekick actually are customizable. Instead of picking a canned one like “Unavailable”, just pick the first one, “I’m Away”, and type in the message you want.

    But I do agree that Away is too strong for a lot of contexts. I’m a huge believer in the non-Away status message: it lets you communicate about what you’re doing without putting up such a big barrier, so people can make appropriate decisions. Some of my status messages, like “Debugging something” or “Scratching my head”, connote an unwillingness to be disturbed, while others like “minty-fresh” are more inviting.

    I implemented status messages very early on in iChat, and we were fortunate enough to be able to talk the AIM people at AOL into adding official support for them to the Oscar protocol. But I have the feeling that a lot of IM clients still don’t support them.

  9. barb dybwad

    I have the same exact problem. I also have similar problems in all other forms of communication, in which in one way or another, people get upset when they can’t command attention in whatever medium. I have people who get incensed that I don’t pick up the phone when they know I’m home. I have people who assume that, because I’m self-employed, it means “must be home and available anytime for whatever reason, especially if it’s technical.” I have people who email and then email again to ask why I haven’t returned their email, and who say “you are supposed to be the tech guru, how come you can’t return a simple email??”

    There is something peculiar about the nature of IM that creates its own particular set of problems, but I think there is a wider gulf in which IM is but one of many casualties… there is surely a digital divide between those who have and use easy access to the internet and those who don’t have any access to computers whatsoever. But I see another divide emerging between those who “use Google every once in a while” and those who keep 6 browsers running all the time. Even with some intense signal/noise filters in my setup, there is far more information coming in than I can possibly deal with. And it’s very difficult to explain to people why I can’t manage their “simple 1 minute request” – it’s not that the request itself is unreasonable, it’s that there are a 1000 such “little requests” sitting in my inbox from this week alone. Which is all on top of the mandatory stuff that has to get done in the course of work/life.

    I think the presence/non-presence idea can be extrapolated beyond IM, because I feel a gulf between myself and my friends who are “non-presence,” and that that gulf is growing. I don’t know how much of that is exacerbated by my already prone-to-antisocialness and how much is a byproduct of some more universal effect. 🙂

  10. Ben

    One other thing that you don’t quite touch on, but that I am noticing now that you have me thinking about it:

    I have a friend who is a a communicator. She comes on to talk, and the moment there is no more talking, she leaves. I cannot tell if perhaps I am the /only/ person on her list, but maybe I am. The thing is, if I walk away for a minute, or even a couple of minutes, she will get upset and leave. (Ironically, she also complains whenever I type long messages – she calls them small novels – she wants me to think and respond, but not too much, but I digress.)

    The always-on’rs, however, seem perfectly content to do a few things:

    1.) Send a message with no expectation of an immediate answer. Whether to an Away message, Idle status, or even if I am there.

    2.) Allow a ‘conversation’ to last for hours with messages interspersed in several minute intervals.

    3.) Allow a ‘conversation’ to fade out and die with no negative repercussions for not saying goodbye or ‘wrapping up’ the conversation.

    The always on’rs understand, as you say, that I have a life. I have never considered it in the way that you present it, but this is an issue of presence. I am available to people, but those of us who are always on understand that we have no monopoly on anyone else’s time. In this way I can carry on conversations with 5 people at a time and do other things, because time can elapse and no feelings are hurt, no one screams for my attention (unless, perhaps, we are clearly involved in a rolling exchange), and I can finish tasks before responding to someone.

    It is for this reason that I almost always work out and chat at the same time (computer and weights are in the same room). But I get one of those random signers on and I have to be attentive and lively and intelligent.

    It’s rather analagous to hanging out with one’s best friend, sitting around watching television, and taking someone on a date. One implies comfort and companionship, the other an attentive exchange of information.


  11. scott

    i like when the boundaries between categories loosen up and even dissolve.

    friend of mine and his boss are always on’rs. they don’t have to reply to e.o.’s IM’s. they don’t have to say goodbye when they drift off, sign off, or suspend. they’re cool like that. but, of course, they also have to continually negotiate the power asymmetry intrinsic to their relationship, even over IM. so amidst that background, one late night they found themselves in a chat over a technical matter that evolved away from its initial subject and became a good natured camaraderie and even, after a while, a sort of friendly bonding. and finally the boss said something like, well, it’s kinda late, i’d better hit the sack, to which my friend said something like, yeah, me, too, sleep well. and really, these are lines they never would have normally said to each other as always on’rs or as super- and subordinate.

    in the hazy midnight, the normal power relationship gives way to a moment of friendship and the cool etiquette of the always-on’r makes way for a poignant acknowledgement of the same.

  12. nick

    It occured to me that we’ve developed ways to deal with interruptions such as knocks and telephone rings, in order to distinguish between different people. There’s the rhythmic knock that’s a signature for a particular person; or the caller who, having been instructed in advance, lets the phone ring once, then hangs up, either to call again straight away or be called back later. (A favourite for kids at college who don’t want to pay the phone bill.)

  13. Yaacov

    As someone who used ICQ when it first came out, dropped it because of how much time it occupied, but has recently been thinking of using IM again, this has been an instructive discussion.

    A potential addition to Glancing would be the ability to see an individual’s busyness stats, like number of unanswered emails from the last three days, whether an activity requiring app (word processor for instance) is open, etc. This would happen as part of a group glance, ie. you drop down the menu thereby glancing at everyone and then mouse over a particular person and their stats pop-up. The eye on the machine of someone you glanced at individually should get a little larger, or maybe stay open a little longer, than everyone else’s.

    This individually increased attention would allow for subtle individual interactions to take place within the social context.

    Separately, I’d really like an app that measure ambient noise with a mic and adjusted music volume accordingly. I work in an open concept office, where we all face the outside walls. I want to listen to music, but not disturb others. But if I get headphones, then I block myself off from the quick “Hey, what’s the name of that dongle in the wiffle file?” questions that come up.

  14. Heather

    This is a very curious discussion to me. I would love to know the age of most of the people doing the postings. I am in my mid-20’s, and as a result, I have been on AIM regularly since high school.

    This seems like a bit of a non-issue. Clearly, there are people who like to talk more, but the longer people have AIM (for instance from high school to college, graduate school and finally a job), the better able they are to understand and regulate boundaries. You as the one with the “presence” simply needs to make your boundaries known openly.

    For instance, most of us by now KNOW not to just leave a crazy message w/o initiating a “hello” lest we leave an embarassing message for a boss or co-worker to discover. Second, if you as the one with “presence” want more space, you should use your away message function. For more saavy users, this is a FUNCTION, not a literal “I am away from my computer” message. For instance, many of my friends will leave 2 types of messages on their AIM. The first is a general profile. This can be, for instance, an explanation of your thoughts on AIM or more commonly something funny. Then there are away messages. Keep in mind that away messages are VITAL to maintaining presence on AIM. I know VERY FEW who use the stock AIM away message. You put up a personal one FREQUENTLY (every time you change what you’re doing & what people to know it). If you just don’t want to be bothered by a long conversation, you can either write something cute (like trying to do X) or something very serious (concentrating on X, please IM only for quick chats). I have seen both. Furthermore, it allows your friends to know where you are both physically (i.e. not ignoring me or physically away from computer) and emotionally (not able to give me attention right now but still thinks I’m an ok person). If you put up an away message that says only IM if X,Y,or Z, and someone IM’s to ask what you think of Brad and Jennifer’s breakup, you have EVERY RIGHT to ignore it. If you are busy/working/not chatting, etc, the away message gives them that update. Then you can use the profile to give more information about yourself and make MORE of a presence…get it? If you REALLY need some alone time, but like to keep the presence on your computer (I do), you can also do the “hide” feature (which is the little eye), and no one can see you unless you IM them first.

    So, when I’m on AIM, I rarely if ever openly chat with people. I will use it as a way to initiate quick conversations, arrange for meetings or do QUICK hello’s (like we’re talking fast). I do, however, every once in a while during the day take a minute to glance at people’s away messages and profiles. If someone’s away message just screams, “hey – ask me about this,” I will. For instance, I got this blog off of someone’s profile.

    So the analogy to the phone and to personal conversation is just WRONG. AIM is a thing that is unique to itself. Remember that. You DON’T need to have these awkward conversations.

  15. Neil

    I am also mid-20’s and have also been using AIM since high school. This “understanding” you speak of simply doesn’t exist for me, especially with people ranging from 13 to 60 on my list. They all view boundaries differently, most use away messages incorrectly (as does Heather, apparently, though because AIM forces you to). Most of the young people put song lyrics as their messages. Many people never come online, though they talk a lot. The older (or young stupid) people either walk away and let their connection idle, or are running software that never idles, yet gives me a message saying they forgot to put up an away message when I IM them.

  16. Heather

    Neil –

    I’m curious as to what you mean by “use incorrectly”. Let’s remember that there are no “rules” to AIM & no set governing standards. If someone is putting song lyrics on their away messages, this is a way to have “presence”.
    People should use the tools they have on AIM to explain where they’re coming from openly & in an up-to-date manner. IF YOU WANT TO BE LEFT ALONE, IT IS ONLY YOUR RESPONSIBILITY TO SET UP THE BOUNDARIES – YOU SHOULD NOT BE CONCERNED THAT OTHERS ARE NOT SETTING THE BOUNDARIES. If you express that you cannot speak right now b/c you are doing X, people will learn to respect that. If they still don’t understand after getting an away message back that says EXACTLY why you aren’t talking, that’s not your problem. This system minimizes the miscommunication that is so inevitable in online communication. The only thing you can do is explain on YOUR away message the boundaries you would like for your AIM communications.

  17. Daniel Andrews: The Weblog

    ‘Always on’ vs. Sporadic Use of IM clients

    I’ve been debating lately what to do with my “online presence”, so to speak. For a long time, I would leave my IM client, Adium, on all of the time – making myself always available to chat with friends, or…

  18. Neil

    No, I think you’re misunderstanding. For example, look at iChat, a program which lets you have multiple “online” statuses.

    By using an away message incorrectly, I mean that you’re not really away, you’re just using the only available method to express to people in what state of onlineness you are at.

    Perhaps there should be a status in between online and away, like quasi-away, or “not paying attention”.

  19. dull

    The analogy to phone conversation seems exactly appropriate, if you see a cell phone as “always on.” Some of these comments seem to be taken, almost verbatim, from things that friends of mine said about cell phones, 6 years ago. Jacob’s posting gave me serious deja vu.

    Now, everyone understands that it is inappropriate, let alone inconvenient, to answer a cell phone every single time it rings. My having a cell phone does not mean that I can always talk, and sometimes I answer when I’m just about to become unavailable.

    My mother assumes (incorrectly) that I only talk on the phone when I’m out of the house, and potentially distracted. That assumption takes off pressure that would make me less likely to answer her calls at any time, so I let her assume.

    I’m with Ben. If someone doesn’t answer me, or has to go suddenly, with any medium, I’ll just try again later without taking it personally. I have to hope that others feel the same or I’d be suffer from the impossibility of satisfying everyone all the time.

  20. Daniel Andrews: The Weblog

    Always on vs. Sporadic Use of IM clients

    I’ve been debating lately what to do with my “online presence”, so to speak. For a long time, I would leave my IM client, Adium, on all of the time – making myself always available to chat with friends, or…

  21. coturnix

    I am in late 30s. I had my IM on for about two weeks last year, then killed it forever. I do not own a cell phone. I check my e-mail a few times a day and respond when I am in the mood to do so. You can post a comment on my blog if you want my attention. I never pick up the phone before I hear who is leaving the message on the machine (and usually not even then) – I’ll call back when and if I want to. Sometimes I do not answer the knocks on the door. My privacy and my choice of times when I am not incommunicado are precious to me. Likewise, I never assume that anyone wants to communicate with me at the time when it is good for me. I do not expect people to pick up the ringing phone, or to immediatelly answer an e-mail, so why bother with IM – what the hell is it for?

  22. Timbu :: Musings


    In the last few years I’ve grow very accustomed to using IM for both work and personal communication. I’m generally online a majority of my waking hours. I recently read a post, by Danah Boyd on the different kind of…

  23. Adam

    This is why I haven’t used IM in four years but I *love* text messages (especially now that my friends with Sprint can get them). The fact that text messages require more effort (typing on a tiny keyboard, or, for the lamers, that T9 crap) is actually an *advantage* — it forces people to think about what they say and be efficient. I love that for all non-conversational communication mediums.

    Plus, I can now give my clients my cell phone number and simply ignore their phone calls. After they get a few SMSes from me, they figure out the appropriate level of access that they deserve, and things work out quite nicely. I can put out their fires at 4am and look like a hero yet still ignore silly questions when I don’t want to be bothered on a Tuesday afternoon.

    I find that I don’t really need to signal presence (or to have it signalled to me) if conversation isn’t the goal. If I text somebody and don’t get a response within five minutes, I assume that they’re “not present.” I sorta like the fact that I can signal different levels of presence to different people.

  24. barb dybwad

    @Heather: Merely because it’s not an issue for you doesn’t make it a non-issue. It’s an issue for several of us who’ve posted in this thread. I’m in my late 20’s and I remember 300 baud with a certain fondness, but many of my friends are just stumbling on to “this IM thing” now. It’s not a simple matter of making boundaries known – it’s a complete gulf in communication technology awareness/experience/culture. And even beyond that, regardless of the medium, there is always some subset of folks who just *don’t get it* for whatever reason – don’t pick up on body language, contextual cues, etc., who tries to demand more attention than you are able/willing to give. It can be difficult to negotiate that phenomenon whether it happens in electronic space or not, and there’s no simple one-size-fits-all solution. Sure I have a responsibility to set boundaries, but others have a responsibility to respect them and calling them on it every time they fall down on that responsibility is draining, and time-consuming.

    Also, the analogy to phone is totally warranted, beyond the obvious association that they’re both methods of communication – VoIP phones are even starting to graft on IM-like features like our good friend the presence indicator.

    @coturnix – re: “why bother with IM – what the hell is it for?”

    I carry out the vast majority of my business communication over IM. Which brings up another element of my particular digital divide, and perhaps others’? I tend to think of IM primarily as a work tool, and my colleagues who do as well tend to be other on’rs and *get it.* My friends who see IM primarily as a play/socialize/hang out tool tend to be the ones who log on, immediately ping me and want to demand attention. They don’t *get* that I’m working because to them, we’re both present in a social space and they see it as hang time. I don’t want to put up an away message, though, because I want to be available to colleagues. Even if IM tools were granular enough to handle multiple status messages to different subsets of contacts – would I really want to spend all that overhead time changing my statuses and delegating who needed to see what? I doubt it.

    re: “When did any one of you send a personal letter by snail-mail the last time?”
    Sorry, I don’t subscribe to the “analog versus digital” and never the twain shall meet myth. I mailed a letter two days ago. I have an iPod(s), and I have vinyl. Computers and moleskines – we really can all just get along. 🙂

  25. Jason

    All comments have many good points! My Fiancee would agree with coturnix. She’s not a fan of IM or Text mesaging. Where I on the other hand enjoy both. 🙂 I’ve been using IM ever since High School and I’m mid 20’s. It’s an excellent communication tool for me.

    I’m one of those “always onr’s” I have incorporated my work IM with my personal IM, so I can keep in touch with family members and friends while at work. Yes at times I’m busy helping customers and can’t respond to an IM, however, like stated by Barb, if I put my status as away, I’ll miss things by co-workers, and I don’t want that because that’s how a lot of work related questions get answered.

    It’s just gotten to the point where people on my contact list have just grown accustom to if I don’t answer then I’m busy, and will respond when can.

    Now Text messaging, I really like that! It’s very convenient. My job is one where I’m on the phone all day with customers, I don’t have time to answer my phone. My friends all message me on my phone. It works out great because I don’t feel obligated to respond right away, and I’m not interrupted by my phone ringing or vibrating all the time. That and it helps me releave stress when I get done talking with not so bright customers! 😉

  26. bicyclemark

    Hmm… liked this piece except for the part about being confortable with IM and hence.. using it for prescence. I’ve been on AIM since it first came into existence… and to this day.. I still only sign on if Im prepared to talk. I know all about the prescence people, but I don’t share their view of how to use AIM. Does it mean I’m not comfortable with the program? pshhhh.

    Anywho — nice post.

  27. networked_performance


    Flows of Moments>>Shared Presence “Last night I was reading danah boyd’s post about how some people log on to IM to mark presence, while others only log on when they want to chat, and how the cultural difference causes tension,…

  28. I want my HAM radio...

    “..the most important information when he is traveling is that his phone is one
    and it is not ringing. That means his family is safe. That’s, depending on how
    you count it, 1 or 0 bits of information.”

    Not to be too picky, but actually that represents some small fraction of a bit of
    information. The uncertainty of the piece of information (“family is OK”) is very
    small (high expectation that they in fact are OK), so the status channel removes
    some, but very little uncertainty (i.e. low, but nonzero, information content).


  29. Praetis

    This is a rant not directed at anyone here, but hopefully will inspire some good thoughts.

    Anyone heard of Jabber? It’s a free, open source IM protocol. It doesn’t have a specific program associated with it but there are a ton of programs that support it, like Gaim and Adium. It’s far from perfect, but it’s a little different than AIM, and using it has helped me realize many reasons why AIM is fundamentally flawed.

    AIM is an old, old system as far as software goes. I agree that IM itself is in its adolescence; our parents could never raise us and tell us how properly to use it as they did with the phone. But from the viewpoint of software development, AOL’s market dominance and its large “internet beginner” user base has made it incredibly slow about developing and changing. I think it’s time to rethink everything.

    Online/Offline: I believe this concept only exists because people didn’t have persistent internet connections at the time instant messaging began. Jabber (and Yahoo actually) let you message people any time, even when they’re offline. The server stores the message until the recipeint comes back online again. That sounds more like email! Why not? The online/offline status having anything to do with the ability to message people is an awful design that everyone has just gotten used to, and now, have trouble thinking beyond. Offline messaging is only called “offline messaging” because of this history. It need not even have a special name, but AIM/ICQ/MSN users don’t stop to think about this limitation and it has to be explained to them. Once all IM systems offer this, no one will ever think about it again. Maybe you only want to get messages when you’re online for some reason? Make it an option.

    I believe Away messages are AOL’s desperate way of getting around the awful Online/Offline limitation, in situations where people stay Online a long time: people no longer know whether the people “on their list” want to talk.

    I am as annoyed as many of you that Away messages, that is, auto-replies, are the only official way of telling someone your status on AIM. Indeed, there’s no way to indicate what you’re doing when you’re available, which would be really helpful for people to gauge whether they want to interrupt.

    I believe Idle status is an equally shady way of getting around the misuse of Away messages.

    I believe “invisibility” only exists, again, because of the Online/Offline problem. Sometimes people want to talk in privacy: they don’t want people to know their status. Well, darn it, they should always have privacy by default! If they’re looking* for someone to talk to, that should be an option. But like stated by the author here, people on AIM will assume that you are looking for conversation if you’re online. The problem is deeply entrenched in us.

    Now if you could send to anyone, even people online, you would need to expand your “Buddy List” to show offline buddies, too, because they’re no less relevant anymore. But many of us don’t have room for that on their screen! You guessed it: I don’t like the idea of a Buddy List, either. I like the initial discussion on this page, of the theoretical use of IM as a communication tool when needed. If you need to talk to someone, you should be able to quickly look them up and go, almost like dialing a phone number. I am certain that it’s possible to have some really easy interfaces for that. So having more of a “phone book” than a “buddy list” would be much better. I think one of the main reasons people get sucked into IM, “wasting all their time”, is just the fact that they’re constantly reminding themselves of who they think* their friends are with this big wonderful list.

    I have lots of other problems with AIM but none of them have to do with presence so I’ll leave them out of here.

    I still use AIM (with Gaim) because most of my friends are on it. But I don’t really enjoy it, and I’ll fight it to the end.

    Again, it’s time to rethink everything.

  30. shelly

    Hello i have a question,I was just woundering how i could talk to people online who have netzero?Because my parents have netzero,and i have is there any way ican talk to them with out just sending an email? Well that’s it thanx alot Shelly

  31. TheOldMule

    Enlightening post! I am new to IM.

    My main thought: what about all of the contextual clues and nonverbal cues that are missed with IM? Perhaps this contributes to the confusion viz. when to communicate. It is hard to intuit through pixels. So, then, we are left with a blunt directness that you describe. Unsatisfying indeed!

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